Doing Everything but Playing the Music – New York Times – Apr 30, 2007

Doing Everything but Playing the Music


The composer John Adams is also a skilled and dynamic conductor. He showed his versatility on the podium in 2003 during one of the inaugural concerts for Zankel Hall, conducting demanding scores by Ives, Lou Harrison, Thomas Adès and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

He certainly seemed in his element on Friday night at Carnegie Hall, when he conducted the American Composers Orchestra in an all-Adams program to commemorate his 60th birthday this year.

After receiving the orchestra’s Distinguished Composer Award from its artistic director, Robert Beaser, Mr. Adams remarked on how rewarding it was to work with musicians who have “such immediate intuition” for the “inner life of my music.”

The performances could not have been more vibrant and authoritative, starting with “My Father Knew Charles Ives” (2003), a three-movement, 25-minute de facto symphony. Actually, as Mr. Adams wrote in the program notes, his father did not know Charles Ives, though he was a similar kind of Yankee character.

The piece is like an hommage to Ives: atmospheric and thickly textured music with multiple elements happening at once.

“Concord,” the first movement, begins with misty and shimmering sustained harmonies packed with pitches, over which a solo trumpet melody meanders restlessly, a clear reference to Ives’s “Unanswered Question.” Soon, though, quiet internal riffs and rhythmic figures break out. “The Lake,” the second movement, is like a collage of marches, dance tunes and breezy piano salon music, with passages to take time out and meditate on it all. “The Mountain” is contemplative only on its deceptive surface, for the music builds in intensity and urgency, if not in volume and rhythmic drive. Though at times the score seemed structurally amorphous, moment to moment the music was riveting.

In contrast, Mr. Adams’s Violin Concerto (1993), here offering the virtuosic Leila Josefowicz as soloist, is very formally structured. There is a neo-Baroque quality to the work, which begins with a searching and endless melody for the violin as the orchestra plays recurring patterns of ascending figures.

The second movement is a modernistic take on the Baroque chaconne form, here turned mystical, transfigured and hauntingly ethereal. The finale, marked “Toccare,” is a metrically fractured but perpetual-motion tour de force. Ms. Josefowicz gave an incisive, tireless, bright-toned and breathtaking account of the formidable solo part.

It was gratifying to hear Mr. Adams’s extraordinary 1989 vocal work, “The Wound-Dresser.” The 20-minute piece is a setting of Walt Whitman’s profound and revealing account of attending to wounded soldiers as a nurse during the Civil War.

The gravely beautiful yet restless music ennobles the text, but it also captures Whitman’s ambiguous feelings.

There is tension between the poet’s graphic descriptions of the injuries and his real sense of witnessing spiritual transcendence of the body. In their anguish and pain, their need and hurt, these brave soldiers seem to Whitman the essence of young beauty tragically cut down.

The bass-baritone Eric Owens brought a burnished and powerful voice to his sensitive performance, though his diction sometimes lacked clarity. Hearing every word of this extraordinary text is essential to the impact of the piece.

Feb 8, 2006, New York Times

In Full Flight for Serkin in an Ambitious Pair of Concertos


Lately it has seemed that the Orchestra of St. Luke’s is New York’s all-purpose symphonic ensemble. It recently played in the Lincoln Center production of Osvaldo Golijov’s opera “Ainadamar.” On Monday night at Carnegie Hall it joined Robert Bass and the Collegiate Chorale for concert performances of Puccini’s first opera, “Le Villi,” and part of his last, Act III of “Turandot” (with Luciano Berio’s amazing completion of the unfinished final scene).

On Thursday night the St. Luke’s players were back at Carnegie Hall for one of their own subscription concerts. The ambitious program, conducted by Roberto Abbado, began with the premiere of Charles Wuorinen’s “Flying to Kahani,” a concert piece for piano and orchestra, commissioned by the Carnegie Hall Corporation and composed for Peter Serkin, who was the soloist. Mr. Serkin has become a revelatory interpreter of Mr. Wuorinen’s music, which is elegant, even ingenious, though formidably complex.

“Flying to Kahani,” an 11-minute, single-movement concerto, is a bit of a musical riff on Mr. Wuorinen’s fantastical opera, “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” which received its premiere at the New York City Opera in 2004. It begins with a sudden juicy chord for piano and orchestra that snaps you to attention. Gradually, slinky piano lines and sustained pungent orchestral harmonies, written in Mr. Wuorinen’s distinctive 12-tone style, emerge and mingle.

As the piece evolves, textures grow denser, events multiply and the pace picks up inexorably until spiraling piano figurations and pummeling orchestral outbursts reach a vehement climax. Then things dissipate slowly and the piece ends.

As in many of Mr. Wuorinen’s works, you sometimes wish for more space in the music, less piling up of counterpoint, less intellectual busyness. But Mr. Serkin has an uncanny ability to make this complex music seem lucid, playful and rich with character. Mr. Abbado and the musicians gave what seemed a confident and colorful account of the orchestral music.
Mr. Wuorinen wrote this work knowing that it would precede Mr. Serkin’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor. So he tucks a quote of Mozart’s main theme (in reverse) at the end of the concert piece.

Coming just after the Wuorinen, Mozart’s somber concerto, with its richly chromatic harmonic language, seemed to be anticipating modernism to come. Mr. Serkin emphasized this resonance between the old and the new in his beautifully deliberate yet intensely expressive performance. He played his own cadenza in the first movement: a bold though compact fantasy that pushes Mozart’s themes into more distant realms of chromaticism.

The concert ended with a genial and honest performance of Beethoven’s remarkable Symphony No. 2. The next concert by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Carnegie Hall will be on March 19, Isaac Stern Auditorium; (212)247-7800.